If you grew up in the home video era, you may have found yourself asking “what is a director’s cut?” Back when DVD was first a thing, some movies would claim to be this so-called “director’s cut,” which could imply many things to the potential buying public. It could have easily been more scenes added back in, more uncut violence, or more story elements.
It might seem straightforward, but there’s a lot more to director’s cuts than just a longer version of a movie. So, what is a director’s cut, and why are there so many of them? We’re going to go over the definition, its history in film production and home video, and famous examples of director’s cuts and the different types of cuts that exist.
Defining “What is a Director’s Cut?”
The Term and Phrase “Director’s Cut”
Before going into the contemporary mainstream definition, we want to quickly mention that, during the editing process, a director’s cut has a different meaning.
Film’s go through several cuts before being released to the general public. The most common of these are known rough cuts (also known as workprints) and editor’s cuts. A director’s cut, therefore, is just one of several cuts that can exist before a final cut is produced.
However, over the decades, the phrase “director’s cut” started getting used to mean something a little different.
DIRECTOR’S CUT DEFINITION
What is a Director’s Cut?
A Director’s Cut is an edited version of a movie, though it has also been used for television, music videos, and even video games. In most cases, it is supposed to represent the director’s true vision for a film, but that varies from film to film.
Director’s Cuts can consist of:
- Added scenes that extend the runtime (the most common attribute)
- Deleted scenes or moments that shorten the runtime
- A change in the plot by way of reduction and rearrangement of scenes
- Additional seconds or minutes of a violent or sexual act, profanity, or some other content that had to be cut for one reason or another
Director’s Cut Beginnings
The Origins of Modern Director’s Cuts
One of the earliest examples of what we would today call a director’s cut comes from Charlie Chaplin’s classic film The Gold Rush. While it was originally released in 1925, the film was re-edited and re-released in 1942, with new musical score, voice over narration, and the deletion of a few scenes. Not only that, but the frame rate was changed, which made the movie 23 minutes shorter. This version has ultimately become the primary version that is available on home video, though both versions are available.
The 1970s is when audiences started to see a bit more of what a director’s cut was. While the majority of movies were still being released theatrically like they always have, a couple movies of the decade were notably being re-released with changes.
A man by the name of George Lucas managed to make a name for himself by expanding a student film he made while at University of Southern California. That film was THX 1138, released in 1971, which was not a massive hit at the time. Not only that, but the film had its runtime shortened against Lucas’s wishes.
But it all worked out for Lucas, since he later directed the mega blockbuster hit, Star Wars, released in 1977. After having such an immediate success, Lucas was able to re-release THX 1138, adding back the scenes that had been removed. Later still, he would come back to this film in the early 2000s and release what is called the “The George Lucas Director’s Cut.” Released in 2004, it included newly made computer generated imagery, along with a new digital remaster of the preexisting footage.
In the same year as Star Wars came Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was directed by Lucas’s good friend Steven Spielberg. Even though he had coveted final cut privileges, he was not fully satisfied with the version that was released in late 1977. According to Speilberg, he wanted more time to work on the film, but the studio wanted the movie released as soon as possible. Speilberg conceded, but the film managed to be a massive success, which gave him the opportunity to finish it to his satisfaction.
Re-released in 1980, this version of Close Encounters was mandated to include an extended ending that Spielberg was very opposed to. Marketed as a “Special Edition,” it managed to make the studio, Columbia Pictures, just a bit more money. This Special Edition was the only version available on home video until The Criterion Collection released both cuts on LaserDisc in 1990. In 1998, Spielberg was able to finally realize his vision with an official “Director’s Cut” which notably removed the studio-mandated “Special Edition” ending.
Director’s Cut Popularization
Director’s Cuts Hit Home
While Chaplin, Lucas, Spielberg were among the first directors to re-release their films, the idea of a “director’s cut” on home video did not start to form until the 1980s.
Even before the rise of VHS over Betamax, cable television was still a sure fire way to catch a movie at home. Extremely influential pay television station Z Channel (broadcast locally in Southern California) is credited with helping popularize director’s cuts as we know them. The channel was a film lover’s dream at the time, featuring lesser known and foreign films, unedited and sometimes even in their original aspect ratios.
In 1982, the channel broadcast the original premiere version of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, marketing it as “the director’s cut.” Prior to this broadcast, Heaven’s Gate was seen as one of the biggest failures in contemporary cinema, originally running over 200 minutes long and later re-cut to be just under 150 minutes. Aside from being a critical flop, it ended up being a major financial disaster for the film’s production company, and is often seen as the final nail in the coffin for the celebrated New Hollywood era.
Z Channel’s broadcast of Heaven’s Gate was a success, making it the station’s most watched feature ever. People who only knew of its reputation had a chance to watch a version closer to the director’s original vision, resulting in a reassessment that has continued to this day, eventually resulting in a definitive director’s cut in 2012.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Director’s Cuts truly became widespread at the local video stores. James Cameron became one of the more notable film directors to add deleted scenes to his movies, with Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day all featuring extended director’s cuts. In each case, the films were not marketed or labeled as “director’s cuts” but instead “special editions,” due to Cameron’s disagreement with the more common term.
Aliens already had additional scenes included in the 1989 television broadcast version, but he would release his Special Edition on VHS and LaserDisc in 1990 and ‘91, respectively. The added scenes provided more character development and extended sequences that were removed at the behest of studio wishes.
A Special Edition of Terminator 2 on LaserDisc (and later DVD) would soon follow, along with a Special Edition of The Abyss. The Abyss Special Edition in particular was much longer than the theatrical cut and included a removed ending sequence that could not be completed at the time of the film’s original release.
Perhaps the most notable example of a movie with alternate cuts is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, known for having one of the best director’s cuts. The film was notable for having major production problems before finally being released in 1982 to mixed critical response and lukewarm box office results. However, between 1990 and 1991, the film’s workprint edit was getting screened, albeit in an unauthorized state. On top of removing the tacked on “happy ending,” this cut removed Harrison Ford’s unfavorable voice over narration. Its positive reception led to the movie getting a more official release by studio Warner Bros., who marketed it as a “director’s cut.”
Scott didn’t like his workprint cut being labeled as such, but the workprint was selling out in select cities. This then prompted the studio and director to create a true “director’s cut,” which improved the workprint’s pacing and editing, and was given a proper re-release in 1992. Years later, with the advent of DVD and Blu-ray, Scott was able to, once again, go back and create what is now known as “The Final Cut,” widely regarded as the definitive (and “only”) version of the film.
Director’s Cut Types
Different Types of Director’s Cuts
Ever since DVDs and Blu-rays became norm, director’s cuts are now a regular part of the home video business. There are now so many movies with alternate cuts that we could not possibly list them all here. What we can do is provide you with the most common types of “director’s cuts,” which often go by various names and may mean different things, depending on the type of “cut” it is.
The most common term, often sold as being the director’s original vision. In some cases, such as Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a substantial amount of footage was added back into a film, which garnered it critical acclaim as one of the best director’s cuts of all time. However, in some cases, it really is just a marketing ploy. Using Scott again, his “director’s cut” of Alien has been confirmed as nothing more than a studio mandate for one of the film’s home video releases. In some rare cases, legitimate director’s cuts are shorter than their theatrical releases.
Famously used by James Cameron and George Lucas, this term emphasises that the new cut of the film is merely a different version, and that the theatrical releases can be seen as the director’s definitive vision. Terminator 2, specifically, was re-released in an “Extreme Edition,” which came with both cuts of the film. However, with Lucas, his Special Edition versions of the Star Wars films have supplanted the theatrical versions, much to fan disapproval.
Extended Director’s Cut/Extended Edition
A longer version of the film, often adding scenes that are new or added back. A relative of the Special Edition, Extended Director’s Cuts are rarely, if ever, seen as definitive and merely just an added bonus for fans.
This is a rarer type of alternate cut, as legitimate workprints almost never see the light of day. In very rare cases, such as with Blade Runner, a workprint gets out and becomes an alternate version for fans.
The cousin of the director’s cut, uncut or unrated films come in two varieties. The first type is a film that had to be cut down in some small way to avoid a ratings issue or some other problem. Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop was originally rated X; to get an R rating, the film had to cut a couple minutes of extreme violence. These days, the film can be found “uncut,” with those missing frames of violence added back in.
The other type of film using “uncut” or “unrated” is simply adding scenes that either feature more violence, sex, or profanity. In this sense, it’s similar to the most common Extended Editions that merely add those scenes so fans have another version of the movie.
While director’s cuts, and their related terms, are often used for marketing, they can sometimes be genuine alternate cuts representing a director’s preferred vision. Unfortunately, due to the overuse of the terms, fans often have to do their research before knowing what’s what. One thing’s for sure: just because a cut of a movie is longer doesn’t mean it’s better or the director’s preferred version.
Famous Director’s Cuts
Quick List of Director’s Cut Movies
We can’t name every director’s cut out there, but we can list a few of the best director’s cuts. We’ll exclude anything that was done for marketing or studio mandated purposes only, and instead focus on movies that have gained greater acclaim with their director’s cuts.
The 1980 theatrical version that went out was a critical and financial atrocity that caused its distributor United Artists financial ruin. As the film garnered more support over the years, director Michael Cimino was able to assemble his definitive director’s cut in 2012, garnering true critical acclaim for the first time.
Receiving mixed reviews and box office in 1982, Blade Runner was improved with new edits, culminating in the 2007 Final Cut that presents the true and definitive vision of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece.
Once Upon a Time in America
A sweeping epic by Sergio Leone, 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America was a gangster tale told over several generations. While the European cut was mostly left alone, the US cut reduced the film from 250 minutes to 139 minutes. While a longer version of the film would air on TV and be released on VHS, a more accessible version of a true director’s cut would eventually come in 2012.
Kingdom of Heaven
Ridley Scott once again had his directorial vision messed with in 2005. Kingdom of Heaven received negative reviews when it first released, but the director’s cut added over 40 more minutes of footage that helped flesh out characters, motivations, and situations, all of which garnered it greater critical acclaim.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
Richard Donner returned for a sequel to his Superman: The Movie, only to be fired for not adhering to studio requests. Decades later, his vision for Superman II would be released in 2006 as The Richard Donner Cut. Using recovered footage, including Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Donner was finally able to bring his version of this sequel to life, as well as fan acclaim.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Arguably the most controversial film of the 2010s, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice released in 2016 to negative reviews. Zack Snyder later released the “Ultimate Cut,” which added back 30 minutes of footage for a total runtime of 3 hours. Even though it was no even longer, most fans and critics agree the Ultimate Cut is the superior version.
James Cameron’s Best Movies
Now that you’ve learned more about director’s cuts, you can dig into the filmography of James Cameron, arguably the most famous director with alternate cuts for his acclaimed pictures (that isn’t named George Lucas). Go through this ranked list and see what you can learn from this one-of-a-kind visionary filmmaker.